[mel-uhn-koh-lee-uh, -kohl-yuh] – noun
1. a mental condition characterized by great depression of spirits and gloomy forebodings.
2. (often initial capital letter) the planet hiding behind the sun, having an equatorial diameter of 79260 miles (10x the size of Earth) and heading towards Earth, threatening the end of mankind.
This morning at the 64th Festival de Cannes, Lars von Triers’ MELANCHOLIA screened for press. Having seen his previous work (ANTICHRIST, BREAKING THE WAVES, and DANCER IN THE DARK are the films most memorable to me), I walked in prepared to be fucked with. Amongst a few things, von Trier is known for shock cinema and striking visuals. The most shocking thing about MELANCHOLIA is that he doesn’t tease the audience, but instead he guides them into the world of emptiness that weighs down on someone when their emotionally confused state has lead to them coming to a complete halt.
Ironically, I walked out of MELANCHOLIA with a feeling of hope and understanding. MELANCHOLIA is a powerful piece of beautiful and haunting cinema.
MELANCHOLIA takes place in a mansion (with its own golf course) the size of a castle owned by millionaire scientist John (Kiefer Sutherland) and his wife, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The couple is throwing a wedding reception for Claire’s sister Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) in their home. When we meet the newlyweds, they are late to their own party and everyone has been anxiously awaiting their arrival.
As the night progresses, we learn that something is very, very wrong with Justine - she’s not happy and it seems that there is nothing that can fill her emptiness. The night ends, everyone leaves (including Michael), and Justine, Claire, John, and their son Leo spend the next five days together in the mansion, wondering where Justine went wrong. An even bigger possible tragedy is on the horizon, however, as we learn that there is a planet ten times the size of Earth that’s been hiding behind the sun, called “Melancholia,” and it’s headed straight towards us, threatening the end of the world. As this newly discovered planet travels ever closer, Justine’s sadness changes, for better or for worse.
MELANCHOLIA is not about the end of the world, but the end of a feeling: happiness. Everyone around Justine just wants her to be happy, but she can only feel everything but that. To understand sadness, you must feel it sometime in your life; von Triers’ heart is filled with sadness and we see it in his films. Unlike his previous works, in which he aimed for us to feel the pain, in MELANCHOLIA, he wants us to understand it. I would go as far as to say that this feels like his most personal film to date.
Von Trier is known to create works that feels misogynist, but in MELANCHOLIA, things have taken a dramatic turn and it’s the women who are strong. Dunst’s Justine appears to be weak and helpless, but she is at war with her sadness - there’s a lot of fight in her. Dunst dresses herself in Justine’s melancholy and gives one hell of a performance. This is Dunst at her best - she’s brilliant and darling and the camera loves her. Charlotte Gainsbourg is now a von Trier alum, and it’s very apparent why: she can bring her desperation and depression down to a painful viewing experience, which is exactly what von Trier wants.
MELANCHOLIA also has a fairly large ensemble cast at von Trier’s disposal, but the most notable performances here are John Hurt as the sisters’ free-living father, Udo Kier as the embarrassed wedding planner, and Kiefer Sutherland as the reasonably irritated brother-in-law who’s too proud.
MELANCHOLIA is oftentimes very hard to swallow, and we know from the first frame that our characters’ story will not continue past the last frame. There are movies that are so good, but so painful that it’s a breath of fresh air when the end credits begin. This is not one of those films. Only von Trier can create a terrific story about sadness that we want to see carry on past that last frame.